Proceed to the Good Life: Vilas County, Wisconsin

There aren’t too many places that make me blow through PTO hours like Vilas County, Wisconsin. My good friend Craig has a cabin on a lake up there. Although we’ve mostly focused on an area within about a 50-mile radius of his place, there are approximately 950 more square miles laced with gravel roads, no-motorboat-access lakes, remote campsites, and perfect little towns yet to explore. Even still, we just call our spots and experiences there “Vilas.”  The word, when we utter it, has an intonation similar to the way people say “the Vatican,” “Valhalla,” “Open Bar,” or “All You Can Eat Pizza.”

Good. Clean. Livin’ …

Vilas deserves that kind of reverence. Hordes of vacationers increase the summer population in mid- to larger-size towns that by all accounts are still quite small, but the Vilas we know is pristine and mostly people free. For more than a decade, we’ve ventured out on the gravel roads and gotten to know the sand conditions the way skiers understand snow. We’ve tried various kinds of bikes throughout that time, too, from dropbar bikes, mountain bikes, singlespeeds, and even fixed gears, all in the quest to find the perfect machine for the sandy, rocky—and sometimes muddy—unglaciated landscape.

If it hasn’t rained in a while, and the sun’s been out, these roads can be 3 inches deep or more with energy sucking sand. No longer. Fat is the way ...

Three years ago we tried fatbikes for the first time and found the silver bullet. Furthermore, we expanded our range by hundreds of miles, because we finally had bikes that allowed us to explore the countless gated snowmobile trails. Full canopy, tunneled two tracks, handlebar-high grass paths, creek crossings and shorelines, forgotten cabins, and barely ever fished-in lakes all revealed themselves to us. What once seemed impossible happened: We discovered a way to make Vilas even better.

A two-lane highway through Northern Wisconsin at rush hour …

And the clouds clear …

Trail gates close as soon as there isn’t enough snow for snowmobiles and remain closed off until about a month before the snow returns, so downed trees and whatnot can be cleared. For the other seven months or so, those trails quietly blend back into the woods. Craig, a Spanish professor by trade, spends five weeks a summer at the cabin, rides these trails every day, and has never seen another person on a bike out there. Last year, he went out each morning with the intent of trying to ride something new every day and succeeded. Endless bounty.

“No, THIS is the best lunch spot we’ve ever found.” At least for today …

Throw in the bonus that snowmobilers are no dummies; many of the trails lead to taverns, and that opens up some real estate in our bags previously occupied by cans. Got room for a couple more meat sticks? You bet. Hell, grab those cheese curds, too.

Brandy old-fashioneds, the Gatorade of Vilas …

We made our annual cabin closing pilgrimage a little later than usual this year and brought my sweetheart Kate along for her first exposure to Vilas. Replete with all the riding, “stunt pontooning” (something only Craig can do), and an always well-deserved Fisherman’s Platter at Vinchi’s Hillside Supper Club, Vilas once again defended its paradise status.

Carol runs Vinchi’s with the precision of an aerial bomber and has the same devastating effect on her patrons …

Vilas is the perfect example of why I’ve become such a fan of fat. If you’re an off-roader and you have time to ride a bike, bring a bike you can ride the whole time. Heading out knowing you won’t encounter any terrain that will make you cry uncle stokes the fire for exploration. On legal land, and especially in Vilas County, Wisconsin, a fatbike is how you proceed to the good life. 

This post filed under topics: Blackborow Explore Fatbike Mark Sirek Mukluk

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Mark Sirek

Mark Sirek

I had to live on both coasts a couple of times to realize that maybe being born in the Midwest wasn’t just arbitrary. I’m drawn to the terrain here, and if you catch me with one of this region’s supreme IPAs in hand, I’ll talk your ear off about my favorite spots. I’ll always take every opportunity though to explore every nook and cranny anywhere I can on a bike, because that’s what makes me feel most alive.


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Bjorn Olson | December 7th, 2015

Exploring forgotten and overlooked landscapes by fat-bike, is the essence of pure joy. Great story and report Mark.

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ArkyKenny | December 7th, 2015

Great read!  Thank you.

Salsa:  More articles like this please.  Covering hardcore racing and group rides is great, but my bike riding, on one of my 5 bikes, is mostly done just for the adventure and enjoyment of it all.  Tell me more stories like this, and I’ll tell you about my 80 mile, 14 hour pub crawl on the Northwest Arkansas Greenway, 4 days of gravel across Oklahoma, rail/trail trips, etc.

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The-Boo | December 8th, 2015

So great! One of the greatest places on the planet. I’d be into hearing about these Northwest Arkansas / Oklahoma trails!

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Summittoppler | December 9th, 2015

Fun adventures on the fat bike, its what its all about!

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Przemek | December 9th, 2015

Forests, lakes, sandy trails and booze. Wisconsin might be the closest thing to Poland on the western hemisphere. Nice one Mark!

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rgrandia | December 10th, 2015

This kind of cycling - this way of life - needs to be experienced by more people! I’m grateful for companies like Salsa who are making this possible for more than the just the most ardent riders!  I agree with Arkykenny. More more more!  RG

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Joe Cruz | December 11th, 2015

This is wonderful, Mark. Evocative, enticing: I absolutely want to pack my bags to head out there but, really, anywhere with that vibe. Thanks for writing it.


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Tim | February 4th, 2016

Thanks for write-up. The last three years—in early September—we’ve headed up from Indianapolis to Vilas County—St. Germain one year—Star Lake this past year—to combine camping with inns. Salsa Warbird is great bike for most of the action—road, bike paths, doubletrack forest road, and even poaching occasional X-country ski trail. I had not yet explored snowmobile tracks—great idea—zillions of miles of ‘em up there—and fat tires would be great. It is beautiful country. Very quiet off-season. Many quality venues from which to enjoy Packers game broadcasts.

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Chipps | February 4th, 2016

What’s a PTO hour?

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Gerald B. Quiocho | February 4th, 2016

Thanks for sharing this.

very inspiring.  your bike’s geometries suit your body sizes.  I can bet you really enjoyed riding
as well as exploring.

Kid Riemer

Kid Riemer | March 22nd, 2016

Chipps - PTO equals Paid Time Off, otherwise known as vacation or holiday…

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NCLT | June 29th, 2016

Article “PROCEED TO THE GOOD LIFE: VILAS COUNTY, WISCONSIN” is amazing for all users.

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Andrew | October 7th, 2016

Nice pictures!

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